A Guide on Your Search for Meaningful Work

No matter your career stage, chances are meaning and purpose are at the core of finding job satisfaction.

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“What’s your dream job?”

From an early age, most children start thinking about what they’d like to be when they grow up. But whether you’re a child, a college student or a working professional, chances are good that you’re looking for a job with meaning. According to a 2017 Gallup poll, a job with purpose, which encourages learning and growth, is important to the people who make up today’s workforce.

Brad Allen Johnson, a former KU student who’s currently a Ph.D. candidate in social psychology at the University of Kent, says a driving desire for meaningful work isn’t just limited to the current generation of workplace professionals. That need is built into our psyches.

“We want our time to count because we know that it is limited, and when all is said and done, we want our lives to have mattered,” Johnson says. “Because culture determines that which is meaningful, a cultural worldview allows us to feel valuable as a part of a social structure that extends beyond our individual lifespan.”

In other words, because our culture emphasizes social structures such as school, work and family, we as individuals often measure the success of our contributions based on our accomplishments in those areas. This allows us to establish a sense of self-esteem and transcendent meaning, and feel we’re contributing to society.

But how do you figure out what will help you feel the most fulfilled in your career? Here are a few tips:

1) Define what “meaningful” is to you.

Author and workplace expert Adam Smiley Poswolsky says a common misconception of meaningful careers is that they only define a narrow set of workplaces, such as nonprofits, academia or a self-owned startup. But purpose means different things to different people. Working in plumbing or in a factory can be just as fulfilling as teaching or developing the next big app, depending on the person. Don’t let others define whether or not a certain job can be meaningful. Instead, consider where you find meaning, and let that lead your search.

2) Find a job that lets you do what you’re good at.

We like doing work that lets our skills shine. According to Gallup, 60 percent of employees rated doing what they do best in a professional role as “very important” to them. As you consider career paths, think about what parts of a job you’d enjoy doing the most, what engages you and what you’d need from a workplace to help you operate at your best.

Not sure what your motivations are? Career coach Nancy Collamer suggests thinking about the activities or thought patterns we automatically gravitate towards. Noticing your natural thoughts and habits may give you a sense of the skills you bring to the workplace.

3) Find ways to do what you love where you’re at, even if not everyone shares your interests.

Poswolsky notes that while a supportive work environment is important, it’s not the only factor in finding success and purpose in your career.

In a competitive job market, you can help yourself stand out from the crowd (and prove your value to your employer) by applying your unique interests and skills to the work you’re already doing.

Are you passionate about writing, but work at an engineering firm? Think about starting a company blog. Crave human interaction, but work in a cubicle? Look for ways to propose group projects, or seek out tasks that put you in contact with other people. Creative thinking and initiative will pay off as your career develops.

4) Keep learning.

If you do decide on a career change, you may find yourself at a crossroads between wanting to follow a new path and needing to update your professional skill set. But starting a new career doesn’t have to mean starting over entirely. Consider a professional certificate program that lets you study a specific area of interest without needing to complete a full degree program, or attending professional events that let you learn while networking with people who are already established in the field you want to work in.

There are lots of ways to find meaning and fulfillment in your career, whether you’re starting from scratch or want to stay engaged in your current job. According to Brad Allen Johnson, the good news is that purposeful work leads to long-term satisfaction and better overall loyalty to your workplace.

“In terms of both personal significance and success, it can be really helpful to believe in your work. Research has shown that meaningful work is a good predictor of things like job satisfaction,” Johnson says. “In other words, people are more likely to be satisfied with their job if they find it meaningful, and they’re also more likely to show up when the going gets tough.”

Johnson says our desire for meaningful work can be traced back to the earliest days of man, and that early anthropological findings may even give us a good idea on how to apply our skills in an impactful way.

“We know from anthropological findings that the earliest humans decorated rocks and valued their creations. In advancing these traditions, they also developed self-esteem and found meaning as creators of valuable work,” Johnson says. “My advice is to find something that you’re good at, that you enjoy, and make it meaningful by immersing yourself in the culture of your company or your profession. Try getting into it. When all else fails, make pretty rocks.”

Tune in to free workplace communications Link & Learns and browse these workshop and training opportunities to learn more about how to increase your job satisfaction and add to your skill set.

Learn more about the psychology program at the KU Edwards Campus.

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